Renewable village offers lifeline to Fukushima farmers

I had a story published in New Scientist (in the magazine print edition in late December and in the online edition on Jan. 6) about a community-run project that promotes renewable energy generation and the reuse of farmland in Fukushima. Below is a slightly longer version of the story, which I think demonstrates once more how some local residents are showing initiative in the face of adversity.

 

By Rob Gilhooly

Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.

It seems like the last place to find a Utopian blueprint. Yet, on an idyllic patch of Fukushima land blighted by nuclear fallout 33 months ago stands the foundations of a model village of the future.

Kenro Okumura stands by the PV panels that form part of the Renewable Energy Village in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. ©Rob Gilhooly Photo. All rights reserved

The farmland in this coastal city is currently home to 120 photovoltaic panels bolted atop a 3-meter-high frame. Upon completion, however, the “Renewable Energy Village” will also feature a wind farm, farmland for radioresistant crops, educational and recreational facilities and an astronomical observatory.

One crop that has already been planted, namely rapeseed, was chosen, say project organisers, because its oil is free of contaminants even though the plants themselves take in some radioisotopes such as those of caesium.

The community-run project was launched in an attempt to protect the area’s farming industry, which was devastated by the triple meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.

People evacuated from areas closer to the plant have given up ever farming their fields again,” said project leader Ryozo Hakozaki. “There might be an amusement park feel to the project, but we’re trying to show them what the future could hold.”

Around 65 percent of Minamisoma’s 8,500 hectares of farmland lies within the nuclear evacuation zone, a 1,256 sq. km area – around half of which is land – that includes parts of Minamisoma. The remainder was flooded by tsunami waves and showered with radionuclides, but in December permission was granted to plant rice there, despite tests revealing cesium levels exceeding the official 100 becquerels per kg limit.

Some farmers see the move as facile, says local assemblyman Kenro Okumura, a local assemblyman and farmer who donated farmland for the project. “It’s three years since the accident, but still there’s no guarantee that crops can be sold,” he said. “At worst our plan protects farmland.”

Central to the project is “solar sharing”– erecting solar panels above farmland and growing crops underneath. Complementing the idea is a government initiative encouraging enterprises to sell solar energy to utilities companies.

That initiative, which was introduced in July 2012, centers around generous feed-in tariffs, which are among the highest in the world. As a result, they have triggered the development large-scale solar parks – though none uses solar sharing. Most have solar panels resting on the ground itself, which makes growing crops impossible. One will be the country’s largest solar park, also in Minamisoma.

Largely thanks to these, shipments of solar more than tripled in the second quarter of 2013, according the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association.

Hakozaki says such large-scale ventures have a major drawback in that they threaten Minamisoma’s farming industry. “If farmers decide to sell up their land to megasolar parks … entire communities will be wiped off the map.”

The Renewable Energy Village model offers a way around this issue, said project chairman Sohei Takahashi, whose radionuclide decontamination research organization is also developing new, radioresistant produce.

Through the project we can protect farmland and communities and with two parallel revenues create increased prosperity compared with before the disasters.”

 

Thin fault zone, slippery clay behind gravity distorting quake

Had a story published in New Scientist about research at the quake subduction zone revealing weak geological factors at the fault zone being behind the massive quake that hit Japan’s northeast in 2011. It sounds as though this is one of those “duh” moments, but methods used to come to this conclusion are truly groundbreaking, involving deep-sea drilling more than

Photo shows the Chikyu (Earth) deep sea research vessel docked at Shimizu port in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan on 11 Sept. 2013. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly. All rights reserved.

800 meters below the seabed at the subduction site, which itself is over 7 km below the water.

The research was conducted aboard the Chikyu deep-sea research vessel (pictured right), which I recently boarded when it docked a couple of months ago — a fascinating experience in itself and one I shall be writing about.

 

Using the data collected from the site during research that began in early 2012, three papers were published in the peer-reviewed Science journal by a team of international scientists.

The first is about the geology of the fault zone and the main result found there is that the fault zone is only about 5 meters or less thick. “That’s fairly unusual and different from what we have observed in other subduction zones. Usually in the 10s of meters or more,” researcher James Mori told me.

The second paper is about measuring the friction of the fault using the core sample of the fault zone material and putting it in a machine that simulates an earthquake and measures the friction. The main result from that paper is the friction is very low due to a huge presence of called smectite — a a slippery clay that is often found to be at the centre of large landslides in Europe. “That means the fault slips very easily during the big earthquake,” Mori added. “Essentially this is the first time such material has been taken from a big subduction zone earthquake so it’s really a brand new result.”

The third paper relates to temperature measurement taken using devices that were placed in the boreholes earlier this year. This too was designed to measure friction. Essentially the same results were found as from other core sample experiment, meaning researchers had two very different ways of estimating the friction. Both  gave about the same level of what is called the “coefficient of friction”. In this case the COF was about 0.1, which is very low — most rocks slip at a COF of about 0.5 or 0.6.

“So one of the ways of applying this is to say that subduction zones that have especially thin fault zones with a lot of smectite potentially can produce these very large slips of 50 meters and potentially could produce very large tsunamis,” said Mori. “That’s not to say that … if there is no smectite there is not going to be big tsunamis — that’s not a good conclusion.”

A separate report utilised data taken from the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite that showed the March 2011 quake had been “felt” in space and distorted gravity over time.

6000 demonstrators voice disapproval of Japan state secrets bill

By Rob Gilhooly

Over 6,000 people gathered to form a human chain around Japan’s National Diet in Tokyo Wednesday to protest against the controversial state secrets protection bill that is expected to become law this Friday.

Despite the inevitability of the bill being rubber stamped before the 185th extraordinary session of the Diet comes to a close on Dec. 6, opponents continue to voice their concerns that the bill is being unnecessarily rushed through Parliament.

If passed, the bill could  impose hefty penalties on leaks of any information deemed sensitive, opponents say. It will also inhibit media coverage and be used to conceal official wrongdoings, they add.

If ratified the law would give ministries the freedom to declare as classified just about anything they want, said Upper House member Takashi Esaki.

The longer (the bill’s enactment) can be delayed, the bigger public opinion will grow and can be heard,” he said. “If that were allowed to happen, the bill could be repealed. (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe knows that, which is why he’s pushing the bill through so quickly.”

This has led some leading figures to question Abe’s true intentions, with a group of academics headed by Nobel Prize winners Toshihide Masakawa and Hideki Shirakawa stating that the issue was the “biggest threat to democracy since World War II.”

During Wednesday’s demonstrations, banners accused Abe of “steamrollering,” while chants from spirited demonstrators referred to the prime minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party secretary general Shigeru Ishiba as “terrorists” and “facists.”

Ishiba has incited vitriolic criticism since writing in his blog last Friday that citizens who demonstrate against the state secrets bill are committing “an act of terrorism”.

Even though the bill enactment is pretty much a done deal, I decided to come out here today to voice my objection, but also to take a look at what a terrorist looks like,” said Hiroshi Satomi. “What I have seen is ordinary people shouting and singing about something they are wholeheartedly against. The real terrorists are inside that building over there,” he added pointing at parliament across the road.

People like Ishiba are not interested in democracy, said another protestor, Toshiko Miwa. “They call their party the Liberal Democratic Party, but there is nothing liberal or democratic about Ishiba or Abe,” she said. “I have started to see posters and so on showing Abe’s face superimposed over those of Nazis. I think that’s absolutely true.”

Another protestor, Naoki Takahashi expressed fear of a bill that by its nature is given excessive leeway when it comes to transparency. “It seems almost unconstitutional that lawmakers should be able to rush through a secrecy bill that does not clearly define what constitutes sensitive state secrets or even what acts would be deemed punishable” under the bill, he said.

The bill also does not bode well for the media industry, said a Tokyo union organiser and journalist Chie Matsumoto during a separate rally held by around 600 Japan newspapers’ union members. “It could mean information is less easy to obtain and even information that is not even sensitive may not be given out by officials due to a fear that it might land them in trouble,” she said.

Upper House member Esaki said the bill is a flashback to a pre-war, Imperial times and undemocratic laws that gave authorities the right to arrest anyone who voiced disapproval of the government.

We are now a step closer to Abe’s ultimate plan, which is constitutional amendment and in particular an amendment to article 9 (which outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes involving the state),” the Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker said. “He is targeting the right of self defence … this is part of Abe’s life work, something that he started in his first stint as Prime Minister.

He is a politician who wants to return to the way things were before the war — a stronger nation, a nation that worships the emperor, a nation that above civilian rights to know demands a unified, national commitment. In other words, a country that is some distance away from being either liberal or democratic.”

 

 

Japan to start new nuclear regulations

DR. Shunchi Tanaka, chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo, Japan on 04 July, 2013. Tanaka said that while operators of Japan's 48 reactors would be eligible to recommence operations should they meet the NRA's new guidelines, they would ultimately need to gain the cooperation of local governments and people of the communities in which those reactors are located. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly

 

Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority has given the go ahead for the nation’s two reactors currently online to remain in service without further inspections following the announcement of NRA’s new safety standards, which will come into force July 7.

NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka said during a news conference July 4 that Japan’s 48 other reactors, offline since the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, would need to comply to “strict and stringent” new regulations before they could be considered for re-start approval.
The NRA has even wider-reaching power than previous watch-dog bodies to ensure the regulations are met, Tanaka said Friday. A new “back-fit” system will be implemented to ensure that any aspects of plant inspections previously left at the discretion of operators will now be independently monitored. The upgrade would turn a previously B-ranked regulatory system into “one that at last comes into line with international standards,” the nuclear watchdog’s chair added.
Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Power Co., the troubled utilities operator of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has said it will ask the government to allow it to restart two of its reactors at another facility in Niigata as they meet the new NRA safety guidelines.
Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida has expressed dismay at Tepco’s request to restart two of the seven reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which was completely shutdown following an earthquake in 2007.
NRA chairman Tanaka said even should utilities companies satisfy the new regulations they would need to win over local people. “The resumption of reactors will come only after operators and political leaders gain the understanding and cooperation of host communities,” he said.
He also believed that due to the severity of the new regulations a new safety awareness culture would grow, superseding the tendency previously seen within utilities companies to undertake the legally allowed bare minimum measures.
Tanaka also commented on the Fukushima power plant saying he did not feel a sarcophagus of the type used to enshroud Chernobyl’s reactor 4 was appropriate for the three damaged Fukushima reactors, which went into meltdown after massive earthquakes and tsunami hit the plant in March 2011.
At Fukushima Daiichi heat would continue to be emitted for tens or possibly hundreds of years, meaning countermeasures will still need to be taken. Rather than enshrouding the leaking reactors it was better to continue efforts to decommission the plants, he said.

Visit to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

It has been quite some time since I added anything to this blog, though quite a lot has happened in the intervening weeks and months. In March I spent the best part of three weeks covering a trial for an Irish newspaper, which related to the murder last May (2012) of an Irish student in Tokyo. There are a few other projects I have been working and hopefully I will get around to adding posts to update this blog in the near future.

On to more recent assignments, on June 12 I  part in a tour of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, which suffered triple meltdowns following the March 2011  earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast. My plan is to write up a more personal account of the experience but for the time being here is the story that I wrote up for the New Scientist, which appeared in the magazine last week.

Photo shows the steel canopy arching over Unit 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The now completed structure will be used to support a overhead crane strong enough to lift 100-ton vessels into which will be placed the 1533 pent fuel assemblies that are still residing inside the unit's spent fuel pool on the 3rd floor. they will be moved to a common spent fuel pool

 

 

By Rob Gilhooly at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

 

An alarm lets off a shrill beep as a dosimeter on the bus hits 1500 microsieverts of radiation. “Do not open the windows,” an official warns. We are inside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, driving by one of the three reactors that went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami that struck north-eastern Japan on 11 March 2011.

The place is a mess, with mangled containers and vehicles scattered around crumbling buildings – but the fact that I’m even here is testament to the now relative safety of the plant. However, much remains to be done and the clean-up operation is starting to look never-ending.

The group I’m with is ushered into a quake-proof building, the plant’s nerve centre since the disaster, by staff from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the plant’s operator. Inside, the only sign of the post-disaster panic and stabilisation operations, undertaken by 3,000 workers a day, is a line of unmade bunk beds, indicating that the clean-up operation is still a round-the-clock affair.

The walls are decorated with messages of encouragement to embattled workers from school children. “We’re rooting for you,” reads one, a bright red heart drawn above. Many of the messages were penned during more ominous times, when tens of thousands of residents living near the plant were evacuated from their homes, and plant workers struggled to secure  water to cool the compromised containment vessels housing the reactor fuel.

Water shortages are no longer the problem – quite the opposite. Today, the main issue is what to do with all the water used to cool the fuel that melted through the containment vessels. This is exacerbated by the 400 tonnes of groundwater that are flooding into the basements of the cracked reactors every day and mingling with leaked nuclides.

rest of story available at New Scientist website here

 

Taiji dolphin slaughter “inhumane”: Study

Grasping a steel spear in his right hand and the fin of a dolphin (obscured by tarpaulin) in the other, a fisheries worker smiles as he prepares to sever the animal's spinal cord in the bloody waters of 'killer cove' in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, in September 2009. ROB GILHOOLY PHOTO. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

I have neglected this blog of late — always seem to have too many other things to do. So I shall attempt to play  a bit of catchup.

I had a story published in the Japan Times here about a peer-reviewed study that contests a previous (non peer-reviewed) study claiming that the method used to kill dolphins in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, was more humane than the method used previously.

First snowfall in 2013 for Tokyo

A woman walks through the snow in Tokyo on 14 Jan 2013. Rob Gilhooly photo. All rights reserved.

 

Jan 14 saw the first snow fall of the winter in Tokyo and it was pretty treacherous. From my apartment I got a view of people passing along the street blow and dozens of vehicles struggling to climb the icy road that runs past on the other side. Cars were basically stopping at lights and then sliding back down the hill – a couple of minor accidents resulting. The meteorological agency estimates more than 40 cm will have fallen around Tokyo by 6 pm today. I’m staying in!

Earthquake on Dec. 7 2012

Injuries were reported in Japan Friday after a magnitude 7.3 earthquake jolted the northeastern region that was devastated by  last years quake and tsunami.

The meteorological agency immediately issued a tsunami warning in the area around Ishinomaki, one of the cities that was flattened by 20 meter waves during the March 2011 disasters.

Tsunami warnings were sounded throughout the area urging people to flea to safety on higher ground. Several cities in Miyagi, including the region’s capital, Sendai, urged residents in coastal areas to evacuate. Sendai Airport was immediately shut down, and flights headed for the airport from domestic destinations were ordered not to land. The tsunami eventually reached Ayukawa at 18:02.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority said no abnormalities had been detected at nuclear plants in the area, including Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, site of the world’s worst ever nuclear disaster last year, and Tohoku Electric Power Co’s Onagawa plant.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency reported that a tsunami measuring 1 meter in height had hit the Ayukawa area on Ishinomaki’s Ojika Peninsula. Further tsunami were anticipated, a spokesman said.

Television images showed violent shaking in Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures. In Tokyo the shaking continued for more than a minute. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda cancelled appointments and immediately returned to his offices, telling reporters he intended to “thoroughly” respond to the quake.

The M7.3 quake hit at at 17:22 local time some 237 km off the Pacific coast of the Ojika Peninsula at a depth of 10 km. The biggest tremors, estimated at around 5 in the Japanese scale of 7, could be felt as far away as Hachinohe in Aomori and Hitachi in Ibaraki.

Some high-speed bullet train services were suspended while minor injuries were reported in Ibaraki and Miyagi.

Japan is estimated to experience 10 percent of the world’s earthquakes and has been stricken by 2 major quakes in the past 17 years, killing a total of 25,000 people.

Eco-Ride

A prototype of the Eco-Ride, an energy-saving urban transportation system developed by the University of Tokyo and Senyo Kogyo Co., is demonstrated at the university's testing facility in Chiba, Japan. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

I tried out the Eco-Ride “train” recently — a transportation system being developed by the university of Tokyo and an amusement ride developer. It’s basically a roller-coaster — there’s no engine or motor to propel it along the elevated tracks, which are designed to utilize and control the vehicle’s potential energy to maintain comfortable speed levels. I have uploaded a video on YouTube here

There’s talk of it being available commercially as early as 2014, and municipalities in the Tohoku region affected by last year’s tsunami are showing an interest in using it for shuttling residents from newly created residential areas on high ground down to their workplaces on the coastal plains.

I wrote a story about this for the New Scientist, an abridged version of which is available of the magazine’s website here

 

Zaha Hadid wins Japan National Stadium contract

 

Zaha Hadid has won an international competition to build the new National Stadium of Japan, adding to the practice’s pretty impressive portfolio, which includes the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games and the Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain. She was selected ahead of 45 other internationally renowned architecture firms for what is a $1.62 billion development.

During the announcement in Tokyo, celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who chaired the judging panel, said: “The entry’s dynamic and futuristic design embodies the messages Japan would like to convey to the rest of the world.” He also complimented the fluidity and innovation of Hadid’s design and how it complements Tokyo’s landscape.

The competition rules specified the stadium must be able to seat 80,000 people; have a retractable roof, be environmentally efficient and complement the surrounding landscape. It must also be up and ready by 2018 to host the Rugby World Cup the following year.

I interviewed Ms, Hadid a couple of years ago and have included most of it below for your enjoyment. She really is a unique and fascinating woman.

Zaha Hadid is one of the world’s most celebrated architects. The Baghdad-born Briton has won numerous international competitions and in 2004 became the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Her works range from a fire station in Germany to a ski jump in Austria, and she was commissioned to design the Aquatics Center for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Yet, more frequently than not she is remembered for the sheer quirkiness of her creations, many of which never actually came to fruition. Her unique ideas and determination to achieve them in a male-dominated profession led her former teacher and business partner Rem Koolhaas to once describe her as being “a planet in her own orbit.” The architect talks to Rob Gilhooly.

Were your family and upbringing in any way influencial on your desire to become an architect?

British architect Zaha Hadid at the Praemium Imperiale, a global arts prize, in Tokyo in 2009. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

I was born in Baghdad and had a very enjoyable childhood in a liberal setting. We lived in a large house and my father was a forward-looking man with cosmopolitan interests. In those days, Baghdad was influenced by Modernism and it was a very progressive city. Both Frank Lloyd Wright and Gio Ponti had designed buildings there. At home, mixed in with the more traditional artifacts, the furniture in my room was angular and Modernist, too. I remember as a child really wondering why these things looked so different, why this sofa was different from any regular one. There was an asymmetric mirror as well, which really was the start of my love of asymmetry.

People of my father’s generation were sent to study abroad. My father, who was a political figure, went to the London School of Economics, so there was incredible social reform everywhere. I went to a catholic girl’s school and the teachers who taught sciences were all from Baghdad University, so the standard of the science lessons was really incredible. The headmistress, who was a nun, was very interested in the education of women, so in a way she was a pioneer in that part of the world.  We were girls from many different religions – Muslim, Christian, Jewish – we had no ideas what our religions were!

I knew I wanted to be an architect from about 11 or 12, but I took math at university because I would have been the only woman in the engineering department of which architectural study was a part.

You majored in mathematics at university. How did you become an architect?

I became interested in geometry while studying mathematics. I realized there was a connection with the logic of maths to architecture and abstraction. Geometry and mathematics have a tremendous connection to architecture – even more so now with the advanced computer scripts used in many of our designs.

2. So computerization has had a big impact on your work?

Actually right from the 1970s we did drawings that were in a sense more complex than those done on a computer. What I think is interesting about computing is of course that it deals with complexity in a much more interesting way and efficient way. It advances the material tremendously. And it’s not necessarily only about saving time. There is much more precision and in the realization of projects it makes a big difference. It enables you much more to manipulate the project from every aspect so in that sense one can achieve much more variety and complexity than one could before.

3. Your work seems to be almost cinematographic. Has cinema influenced you?

I’ve always been interested in how movement affects architecture. As in the frames of a film: not seeing the world from one particular angle, but having a more complex view. We view the world from so many perspectives – never from one single viewpoint – and now even from the air and satellites – our perception is never fixed. So the concepts of fragmentation and abstraction have been central to my work of de-constructing the ideas of repetitiveness and mass production – moving away from all the ideas we inherited from the industrial societies of the 19th century.

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